News / Middle East

Syria’s Kurds Play Political Odds between Assad, Erdogan

An estimated 200,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing poverty and civil war have sought refuge in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. These refugees crossed the border at Peshkhabour check point, 260 miles from Baghdad, on August 20, 2013.
An estimated 200,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing poverty and civil war have sought refuge in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. These refugees crossed the border at Peshkhabour check point, 260 miles from Baghdad, on August 20, 2013.
David Arnold
Civil war may have devastated much of Syria over the past two-and-a-half years, but one part of the country – its northeastern Kurdish region – has been relatively unscathed.
 
Last month, however, a flood of nearly 200,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees into the largely autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq raised new fears that Syria’s Kurds are becoming increasingly embroiled in the Middle East’s most violent conflict.  
 
The refugees were fleeing attacks by jihadist groups that attacked Kurdish communities along the Turkish border. Militant groups such as al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, are fighting to control border areas near Turkey because they control vital supply routes.
 
The fighting was also sparked in part by Syrian Kurds trying to form an interim government in the area -- complete with a constitution and a parliament.  The plans unveiled in mid-July by the Democratic Union Party, known as the PYD, led to fighting between PYD-affiliated militias, known as the YPG, and the largest Syrian opposition armed group, the Syrian Free Army. The YPG also fought with jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.  
 
Turkey takes an interest
 
Now, as Syria’s Kurds are increasingly coming into conflict with the Syrian opposition, they are being courted by regional players like Turkey. As Syria’s Kurds fled by the tens of thousands into northern Iraq, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, invited PYD’s leader, Saleh Muslim, to Istanbul to discuss Turkey’s faltering efforts to put a peaceful end to its own 29-year Kurdish revolt. The move was seen as a surprise because the PYD is closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the Turks consider a terrorist organization.
 
Experts said Muslim and Davutoglu appeared to be negotiating an understanding that will aid Turkey’s pursuit of peace in its eastern Anatolia region. Since Damascus pulled most of its troops from the region last year to bolster efforts to defeat Syria’s rebels elsewhere, PYD militia units have guarded Syria’s pipelines and until recently suppressed anti-Assad protests.
 
“The PYD and Assad work together to secure the oil pipe lines for the regime and to stop anti-regime demonstrations,” said Eva Savelsberg, director of the KurdWatch human right blog and president of the Berlin-based European Center for Kurdish Studies.

But the direction the PYD takes in the name of Syria’s Kurds ultimately depends on their own pursuit of power and on the leadership of Kurdish militants across the border in Turkey, say observers of Kurdish regional affairs.
 
“It’s controlled by the PKK,” said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Kurdish affairs analyst writing for Istanbul’s Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, referring to the PYD.
 
Power resides in the militias

Much of the strength of this emerging Kurdish political power comes from the YPG militias who control three enclaves – Afrin, Ayn al-Arab and Hasakah province - along Syria’s northern borders. These enclaves enable them to recruit and levy taxes on oil shipments crossing the Syrian border, where they continue to clash with Jabhat al-Nursa units for nearby border crossings. 
 
The PYD also gained strength from the arrival of PKK cadres who left Turkey in apparent compliance with Turkey’s peace demands.
 
“In the last four weeks a lot of PKK cadres came to Syria,” said Savelsberg. “What the YPG is doing is getting more weapons and more power, possibly to confront Jabhat al-Nusra.”
 
The PYD claims it does not side with the Assad regime or his political opposition. They call it the “third way”, said van Wilgenburg.  “But their rivals accuse them of being close to the regime.”
 
Kurdish politics in Syria cross many borders. Most parties have joined one of four blocks with links to Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq or the PKK in Turkey. Most recently, parties within the Kurdish National Council (KNC), an opposition group to the YPG, have joined with the Istanbul-based exiles of the Syrian National Coalition.  
 
“The PYD is not happy with that,” said van Wilgenburg, “They see it as a coup against their autonomy plan.”
 
“It’s quite complicated,” he said.
 
In a bid to ease tensions the KNC and the YPG recently formed the Kurdish Supreme Committee and both groups are supposed to jointly administer areas under Syrian Kurdish control until elections can be held.  But observers say tensions remain between the two groups. 
 
Who will be PYD's partner?

“I think it’s clear who the bad guys are,” said Savelsberg. “That’s clearly the PKK and the PYD.”
 
“Hardly anyone is ever critical of the PYD,” said Savelsberg. Kurds do not object to YPG’s repressive tactics because some are afraid, she said. Others are silent because “a lot of Kurds have the opinion that being persecuted by Kurds is better than being persecuted by Arabs.”
 
The YPG militias have earned a reputation for destroying community centers, civil society offices and headquarters of the political opposition in the region, said Savelsberg. In June armed YPG forces attacked a street demonstration in Amuda, killing six activists and wounding dozens more, drawing international protest.
 
“The PYD wants people to forget what happened in Amuda, where they kidnapped and killed a lot of activists and lost a lot of sympathy,” said Savelsberg. “They needed to put the focus on someone else and who is the better enemy than Islamists.”
 
The PYD is loyal to Assad “only as long as it is useful for them,” said Savelsberg. “It’s not so much they are supporting the regime. They now want to consolidate their own power. They choose their partners for military strength."

You May Like

Turkey: No Ransom Paid for Release of Hostages Held by IS Militants

President Erdogan hails release of hostages as diplomatic success but declines to be drawn on whether their release freed Ankara's hand to take more active stance against insurgents More

Audio Sierra Leone Ends Ebola Lockdown

Health ministry says it has reached 75 percent of its target of visiting 1.5 million homes to locate infected, educate population about virus More

US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

As tumult in Middle East distracts Obama administration, efforts to shift American focus eastward appear threatened More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Saving Global Fish Stocks Starts in the Kitcheni
X
September 22, 2014 11:42 AM
With an estimated 90 percent of the world’s larger fish populations having already vanished, a growing number of people in the seafood industry are embracing the concept of sustainable fishing and farming practices. One American marine biologist turned restaurateur in Thailand is spreading the word among fellow chefs and customers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Saving Global Fish Stocks Starts in the Kitchen

With an estimated 90 percent of the world’s larger fish populations having already vanished, a growing number of people in the seafood industry are embracing the concept of sustainable fishing and farming practices. One American marine biologist turned restaurateur in Thailand is spreading the word among fellow chefs and customers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv prides itself on being both physically and culturally close to Western Europe. The Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country are 1,200 kilometers away, and seemingly even farther away in their world view. Still, as VOA’s Al Pessin reports, the war is having an impact in Lviv.
Video

Video Chinese Admiral Key in China’s Promotion of Sea Links

China’s President last week wrapped up landmark visits to India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, part of a broader campaign to promote a new “Maritime Silk Road” in Asia. The Chinese government’s promotion efforts rely heavily on the country’s best-known sailor, a 15th century eunuch named Zheng He. VOA's Bill Ide reports from the sailor’s hometown in Yunnan on the effort to promote China’s future by recalling its past.
Video

Video Experts Fear Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Alibaba Shares Soar in First Day of Trading

China's biggest online retailer hit the market Friday -- with its share price soaring on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares were priced at $68, but trading stalled at the opening, as sellers held onto their shares, waiting for buyers to bid up the price. More on the world's biggest initial public offering from VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid